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An employee works with stem cells at a laboratory in Munich, Germany April 23, 2019.MICHAEL DALDER/Reuters

Let’s Talk Science and the Royal Society of Canada have partnered to provide Globe and Mail readers with relevant coverage about issues that affect us all – from education to the impact of leading-edge scientific discoveries.

Cate Murray is President and CEO of Canada’s Stem Cell Network, a not-for-profit organization with a mission to power life-saving therapies and technologies through regenerative medicine research for the benefit of all.

What if treatments for rare and chronic diseases such as type 1 diabetes and Alzheimer’s could be found within our own bodies? What if one day diseased livers and lungs could be fully repaired? Science is getting close, really close – and the answer lies within stem cells.

Stem cells are commonly known as the “building blocks” of the body. What is not as commonly known however, is that these tiny little cells have tremendous potential to treat a plethora of diseases, injuries, and life-altering illnesses, and Canada has been a global leader in this field for over 60 years.

Stem cells are unique because they have the capacity to self-renew by dividing and developing into more mature, specialized cells. They are quite different from the body’s 200+ other cell types because they have the potential to differentiate into any cell type and can regrow, repair or replace damaged or diseased cells, organs or tissues.

As a key technology in the field of regenerative medicine, stem cells are undeniably unlocking new ways to treat disease and injury. Stem cell therapies have been used to treat blood cancers such as leukemia for many years, but stem cell therapies are also now being used to treat aggressive multiple sclerosis, and they hold extraordinary promise to one day treat type 1 diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, spinal cord injuries, and neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.

Canadian science, Canadian strength

The existence of stem cells was first confirmed by two Canadians from the University of Toronto, Drs. Ernest McCulloch and James Till, in the early 1960s while investigating the effects of radiation on mouse bone marrow. Since then, Canada has demonstrated itself to be a global leader in the field with many notable discoveries and scientific advancements made by researchers across the county.

For instance, in 1992, while working at the University of Calgary, Dr. Sam Weiss discovered neural stem cells, in the brains of adult mammals, a discovery that has since led to new approaches for brain cell replacement and repair, and experimental therapeutic strategies for brain cancer. In 1993, Dr. Janet Rossant and Andras Nagy proved the pluripotency of embryonic stem cells, confirming that they have the ability to turn into any cell type in the body, a seminal discovery that has had long lasting impact on stem cell biology.

Numerous other important discoveries and advancements have followed including Dr. Freda Miller’s identification of skin-derived stem cells in 2001, Dr. Connie Eaves’ discovery of breast cancer stem cells in 2006, and Dr. Michael Rudnicki’s identification of muscle stem cells in 2007 to name a mere few. Taken together, the contributions of Canadian scientists and researchers has been, and continues to be, impressive.

Canada’s historical track record aside, the economic potential for the future of Canadian regenerative medicine is also something to be excited about. Health economists have indicated that Canada could capture at least 5% of the projected $77B USD market, representing $5B in potential growth for Canada and the generation of 6,000 highly qualified jobs.

With so much potential for the future of the field, it raises the question: How does one choose a career in stem cell biology and regenerative medicine? How do the youth of today and tomorrow learn about this important and growing sector?

Engaging the next generation in stem cell science

Jessica Esseltine, Assistant Professor of Cancer and Development at Memorial University of Newfoundland shares the moment she knew she would pursue a career in stem cell science.

“The first time I ever saw a stem cell culture, I looked at them and said, ‘oh, those are ugly little cells!’ Then I did my first differentiation experiment and literally watched the cells change shape and size – right before my eyes. It seemed miraculous. And I never wanted to do anything else from that point on.”

For some people like Jessica, these ah-ha moments happen during post-secondary training, or at career fairs, but for others the first exposure to stem cells happens in high school though programs like StemCellTalks, a national outreach initiative that promotes stem cell discovery and dialogue in high school classrooms across Canada. The program, which has been running for well over a decade and educates an average of 1,000 students a year, is made possible through dedicated volunteers and a partnership between the Stem Cell Network and Let’s Talk Science. During a full-day or half-day symposium youth are provided with the unique opportunity to connect with experts in the stem cell community and explore fundamental questions such as: What is a stem cell? How are stem cells used? What constitutes safe, effective and ethical stem cell therapies?

Educating the next generation about the potential of stem cell and regenerative medicine is as crucial as ever – who knows what the future holds, what treatments might exist in 10 years, and which bright young Canadian scientists will take us there.

Learn more about StemCellTalks or register a student/class in an upcoming virtual symposium this May or June in English or French.

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